Rolling Stones riff on entrepreneurship and managing their business

Leonardo Rasaki

The Rolling Stones are one of the most successful rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. Their worldwide reach and legendary status didn’t happen by accident, but was the result of careful planning, hard work and sound business decisions throughout the band’s life — as well as talent.

A new, four-part documentary, “My Life as a Rolling Stone,” by the television network Epix hits on the band’s well-chronicled highs and lows. Yet during the interviews there are numerous illuminating business and economic lessons. Entrepreneurship and good management lie at the heart of an enterprise that’s still going strong in its seventh decade.

Watching through that lens is Marketplace senior economics contributor and resident Rolling Stones superfan Chris Farrell, who spoke to “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about the lessons we can take away from the Stones’ success.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: You’ve actually seen the Stones? Like, in person?

Chris Farrell: Yes, absolutely. Twice.

Brancaccio: All right, just checking your cred here. OK, so we’re watching this for many reasons, but you’re watching it for management lessons. Like what?

Farrell: Yes. So OK, look. You have this documentary [that] is comprised of four hourlong films, and it focuses on each band member, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and the late Charlie Watts. And I focused on Jagger and Keith Richards. And you know, David, we know about the parties, the drugs, the high jinks, right? It’s striking how much time and energy and passion they put into learning their craft right from the beginning. So like most talented people with a shared passion who get together to start a business, a software company, a media company, they had no idea how big it was going to get. During his interview, Richard says, you know, the Stones wanted to be the best blues band in London. Jagger says no, pop band. Either way, they were ambitious, and they put in the work.

Brancaccio: I know, but they weren’t framing it in terms of “This was a startup business and we’re going to have to purvey our product to the widest possible market.” They’re creative souls, but they were thrust into the role of figuring out how they’re going to manage a burgeoning business.

Farrell: That’s right. And I think that’s another lesson here. So one of the most difficult transitions any successful startup has is how do you navigate the shift from pursuing what [is] a passionate gig to managing a big business? So the Rolling Stones, they were famous, they were performing these sold-out venues. However, they eventually learned and it was eventually learned that their finances were a mess. Jagger notes that they didn’t know they hadn’t paid taxes in the United Kingdom for years. So Jagger took charge, and he engineered a restructuring. He became the band’s organizer and the controller who pays close attention to the details of a global business. And quoting from him, he said someone has to be in control of the enterprise. I’m representing the band and make sure they don’t get screwed. OK, [he] used a different word.

Brancaccio: “Screwed” is the euphemism? OK. So, you know, and in many enterprises, but certainly rock ‘n’ roll bands, the rest of the group will say, “Who made him grand emperor of the band?” But in this case, Keith Richards went along with Jagger’s shift in responsibilities?

Farrell: Yeah, sure. I mean, so many organizations fall apart, you know, when these egos clash. But, you know, Richards really appreciated what Jagger did for the band. But what Richards did is he kept the original vision of staying true to the music alive. Look, they had disagreements, they nearly broke up. But Jagger and Richards realized that the work, the craft and the money was better together than it would be apart. So this ability to collaborate, to pivot, to adjust, it’s key to any successful startup. So, by the way, is having a clear identity for your business. So I found fascinating the discussion when Jagger talks about the importance of developing their now-famous tongue-and-lips logo back in 1971.

Brancaccio: Yeah, so that was a branding exercise. They were very focused on that.

Farrell: Very focused, and it was very important. There are no words. You would just see the logo and know it was the Rolling Stones.

Brancaccio: What else struck you watching all these parts of this doc?

Farrell: You know, Charlie Watts has passed away. But Jagger, Richards and Ronnie Wood are in their 70s, and they’re still performing. They’re still learning. They’re still evolving their craft. And most importantly, they have fun on stage. So you know, David, America’s population is aging. And not surprisingly, the embrace of entrepreneurship increasingly lies with the older generation. So the Stones may not realize it, but they have become career role models for the rest of us to learn from, and who would have thought that 60 years ago, when the band was formed?

Brancaccio: Hey, Chris, you want to hear the easiest money I ever made?

Farrell: Yes, absolutely.

Brancaccio: I bet a buddy of mine that I could guess the band that would be playing if he turned on a rock ‘n’ roll station that I worked for because I knew the format so well. He’s like, “No way.” So he goes, “You’re on,” and I go, “Rolling Stones.” He turns on the radio. It’s the Rolling Stones.

Farrell: [Laughter]

Brancaccio: Know how I did it? I was the one who knew that the station was playing only Rolling Stones all weekend!

Both: [Laughter]

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